Today, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month is celebrated as Tết Đoan Ngọ. The holiday started as a Chinese holiday to commemorate the death of Khuất Nguyên (屈原), who was a respected politician and a poet who lived in the country of Sở (楚) during the Warring States period in China. Disheartened over the state of his country and the scheming of fellow courtiers, he committed suicide by jumping into a river on the fifth day of the fifth month. The local people tried to rescue him to no avail, and began to bang on drums and throw food into the river so that wandering spirits would not disturb his soul and the fish would not eat his body. From then on, on this day, people gather at the river where he died and throw food into the water.
Now, the way the holiday is celebrated in Vietnam has diverged significantly from these origins. After going to the same high school with some people from northern Vietnam, I found out that out north, they celebrate the holiday by eating lots of fruit and bánh tro (a kind of rice cake wrapped in leaves – yes, I know this describes dozens of Vietnamese cakes, but we don’t really eat it where I’m from) and drinking sticky rice wine. Friends from Hanoi have also told me that the festival is celebrated much less there than in Hue (my hometown), where it certainly is among the most important festivals in the year. We don’t bother with the fruit and wine however; we do it with a nice duck meal.
Yes, you read that right. It’s the day when we, for reasons unknown to me, eat lots of duck dishes. In fact, it’s quite common to see motorbikes driving around in Hue around this time where the driver and/or passenger is holding two, three, or even four or more live ducks bound for slaughter.
Anyway, I usually spend the holiday out at my paternal grandparents’ place in Quang Tri, about 60km north of Hue – this year, my cousin came to pick us up in the morning and dropped us off again in the afternoon. All my aunts and uncles had gathered in the morning to cook the day’s array of duck dishes, which, this year, included duck noodles, duck soup, boiled duck dipped in fish sauce, and of course, the all time favourite, tiết canh (coagulated duck blood with meat, herbs, peanuts, and various spices, eaten with crispy rice cake).
The meal was great, and it was a lot of fun to catch up with all my aunts, uncles, and cousins, most of whom came for the meal, and, of course, my grandmother (who is now 96). In the evening, I headed to my maternal grandmother’s place, and once again, was offered (surprise, surprise) duck. As I really like duck, this really isn’t a problem – in fact, everyone has a great time during Đoan Ngọ each year, with the probable exception of the ducks.